Robert Aldrich’s penultimate film is an easygoing work of some considerable charm that relies far too much on ethnic humor — mostly Jewish, but not entirely — to sit quite as comfortably as it might like.
The premise is workable: A singularly bad rabbinical student, Avram (Gene Wilder), is sent to serve as rabbi for the Jewish community in 1850 San Francisco. The problem is that the script by TV writers Michael Elias and Frank Shaw feels for all the world like … well, a script by TV writers. You can almost sense where they envisioned the commercial breaks. Having worked on the short-lived TV version of Blazing Saddles, the duo apparently wanted a similarly themed movie they could call their own, which they did by substituting an out-of-place rabbi for an out-of-place black man.
The script had apparently been kicking around for some time when Aldrich agreed to make it into a film for producer Mace Neufeld. Why? Probably because Aldrich was a veteran filmmaker who simply loved making movies and this was the only project going.
His professionalism serves the film well. It’s very hard to fault on a technical level, and he brings a strong visual sense to bear on a number of sequences that raise them several notches above the TV flavor of the material. The dance sequence, when Avram and his unlikely companion, Tommy (Harrison Ford), are prisoners of a tribe of Indians, is a good case in point, as is the final shoot-out in the streets of San Francisco.
But the main interest in the film is probably Gene Wilder’s performance, which is interesting simply because it’s one of the few times that Wilder played a character that wasn’t essentially Gene Wilder. And, lo and behold, he does a perfectly credible job of being someone else — or at least someone else who isn’t Willy Wonka. (And coming as it did after Wilder’s execrable The World’s Greatest Lover, it seems even more remarkable.)
Never a great movie, it’s nonetheless a pleasant one — an old-fashioned entertainment that more than gets by on the unforced (albeit unlikely) chemistry of Wilder and Ford. And it’s certainly worth catching for Wilder’s performance, as well as for the work of Aldrich, who I don’t think ever made a wholly uninteresting film. Rated PG
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of The Frisco Kid on Sunday, June 19 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson St. Follow to Lake Point Landing entrance and park in lot at left.)]